Backpacking 500 miles in the Mojave Desert (part 3)

In November and December of 2000 I backpacked from my house in Palm Springs to Lake Mead and back.

Part 2 can be viewed here.

Mohave 500 mile map

Sheep Hole Valley lies adjacent and north of Joshua Tree National Park, with Highway 62 as its shared border. In 1994, as part of the California Desert Act, the area was designated as an official Wilderness area.

The western boundary is the Sheep Hole Mountains, which at their highest point, rise about 1,000 feet above the valley floor. The southern end of these mountains terminates at Highway 62. The eastern boundary of the Wilderness is the smaller Calumet Mountains. Sheep Hole Valley, contained by these two small mountain ranges is an alluvial plain that slowly descends to Bristol Dry Lake. For most people there are no outstanding scenic features in the area. For me it is an outstanding area that is rarely visited; remote, and desert.

Five days earlier I had hidden 3 gallons of water and food at this southern terminus of the Sheep Hole Mountains, covering, protecting, and camouflaging them under a pile of rocks. My cache consisted of two 1-gallon containers of water, four one quart plastic bottles of water, and five days of food. The food was in an empty 1-gallon water container I had cut open and then taped shut with duct tape. All food was in Ziploc bags to protect and minimize any odors that might attract animals, rodents, or insects. There are more secure and wildlife-proof containers to protect a cache, all of which weigh much, much more. I could have left any cache containers it this point, which would have required me to come back and pick them up. That wasn’t a practical solution.


Aside from the concern of wildlife getting into the cache, there is the question of whether or not it is allowed to leave a cache. That question I ignored, because trying to sort out government agency rules and regulations is an exercise in futility; it is so bad that one can expect to get just about as many answers as the number of government employees inquired. Given this, it is obviously most prudent and rational to assume it is okay to cache supplies in the spot I did. The last concern was the possibility of a member of the species Homo sapiens would find the cache and claim it as their own – even though I had included a note stating the cache was critical to my safety and well-being, along with the date I would be retrieving it.

The afternoon of Day 4, I crossed Highway 62 and walked to my cache, which was undisturbed by man, animal, rodent, or insect – a great relief for me.

I was carrying four 1-quart plastic canteens, which were empty, and filled them first. The four 1-quart bottles would be carried in my pack, giving me 2 gallons of water that would have to last the next section of about 75 or 80 waterless miles and a planned three-day walk. The remaining gallon would be used to do a little washing, cooking a large dinner and breakfast, and just drinking a lot more water than usual that night and the following morning.

One of the reasons I used the 1-gallon plastic containers was they would be easy to cut up and carry in my pack, thus taking up little space, and they were the lightest option to carry until I could find a trash can along the route.


This was a straightforward day walking towards Bristol Dry Lake. No navigational skills needed other than avoid the areas of soft sand that slow one down and tire the calve muscles. There are a few old jeep tracks and footpaths, and I followed them when practical and in the direction I needed to go. For the most part, the day was a straight-line hike down a gradual decline in elevation. Easy walking soon got me to the edge of Bristol Lake, where I would make my camp a short distance from the lakebed in the shelter of the tiny foothills of the Calumet Mountains, which would provide some protection from the chilly winds that were beginning to increase in the late afternoon.

Bristol is a dry lake and there is a salt evaporation operation on the western edge of the lake (opposite of where I was camped). Bristol has about 60 million tons of salt in reserve, and the salt layer averages about 5 feet in thickness.


Today I would exit the Sheep Hole Valley Wilderness, for which I saw no signage, crossing into land managed by the BLM and possibly some private holdings. The land was flat, still slightly sloping downward. I was again in low desert and the day was warmer than it had been since the day I started the hike. Thankfully the strong winds of the previous night had subsided. Vegetation was sparse, soft sand plentiful and I was anxious to gain elevation and again reach the high desert.

Although I didn’t know it yet, my biggest obstacle of the day was yet to come. I was in an open area between several wilderness areas and ahead was several parallel railroad tracks. Seconds before I got to the track, the longest freight train I had ever seen blocked my way, probably traveling at least 50 miles an hour. I didn’t think to time it, but after what seemed an eternity, the obstacle was speeding towards Needles, Ca and I resumed my forward progress.

Crossing the two-lane historic Route 66, I was near Kellbaker Road that goes to Kelso Depot, my next water destination. The road bisects a plain with the Bristol Mountains on the west and the Marble Mountains. I kept as far from the road as possible, northeasterly towards the perimeter of the Marble Mountains, where I would make my night camp.

The ground was firming up, plain sand being replaced with a nice aggregate of stones, pebbles, and dirt. Since the terrain was now a gradual elevation gain, the firm ground was more than welcomed. The Marble Mountains, which are part of Trilobite Wilderness, to my right, were intriguing. I crossed several jeep trails leading to the hills and I am sure there had been a lot of prospecting in the area at one time. It still is on my list of places to visit, and I shall return one of these days. I did see a couple big horn sheep high above me.

I camped a couple miles south of I-40 and mostly out of sight and sound of the sparse traffic that travels on Kellbaker Road to the west and the freeway ahead. Barely perceptible, I was gaining elevation.


I started the day’s hike with one gallon of water. I was on plan; the water was working out to ½ gallon per day, thanks to the cool fall weather. As I enjoyed the Marble Mountains with irregular rocks, angles, boulders, deep reds and blacks; all of which were just begging to be explored. I was now approaching I-40. This freeway had, 25 years earlier, killed the traffic of Route 66, the nearly vacant roadway I had passed 24 hours earlier.

The roadway of Route 66 generally follows the contours of the land. It twists, turns, and undulates up and down. But I-40 is a super highway. Mostly straight and elevation gains are graded to be mild. In front of me was a massive man-made berm, towering over the desert, bridging the mountains at each end of my peripheral vision. On top of the earthen berm were the asphalt and concrete lanes that hurled big rigs and passenger vehicles at 70 plus miles per hour. In the slope of the berm was a huge steel drainage pipe, tall enough for me to walk through. I thought about it, but decided to head back to Kellbaker Road, running along the natural grade of the land, and under I-40. Cement, car, big rigs, exhaust, and noise. Within 30 minutes the noise of the freeway was gone. I was now making track away from Kellbaker Road headed straight for the gorgeous Granite Mountains. I was in high desert now. The landscape was green and lush with the upper desert landscape. The boulders, spires, and pinnacles of the Granites beckoned me. I had entered the Mojave National Preserve.

I was familiar with the Granites, having circumnavigated the entire range a few years earlier and climbed to some of the higher elevations. With some sleuthing and a perchance of knowing where to look, the area has many fine specimens of petroglyphs and pictographs.

I would hike close to this mountain range in a counter-clockwise direction along the southern and eastern sides. They are rugged and inviting. There are several springs at upper elevations and sometimes in the winter and spring they trickle down to lower elevations and somewhat easy access. The water means wildlife is plentiful. Having spent time in the Granites, their pull, like the mythical Sirens was reasonably easy to overcome, but I was tempted several times. The eastern edge of the Granite Mountains pushes against the Providence Mountains, creating a pass that contains Kellbaker Road. I was far enough away to not hear or see the few cars that traveled the road. This area, in the pass, has fabulous rock formations and boulders. They were begging me to stop and stay a few days. But one must go on.

I walked along this eastern flank until the neared the north side of the mountain range, which overlooks the Kelso Sand Dunes that rise more than 600 feet above the desert floor. It was here I camped. In case of wind I wanted to be in a sheltered cove of a mountain, not the open plain that created the huge dunes below me.

Day 8

At this point, I was probably 15 miles or less from Kelso Depot. Kelso was a boomtown in the time when steam engines powered locomotives. Bisecting the Mojave Preserve are some serious train tracks. Like 4 or 5 or maybe 6 sets of rails. Today the trains are powered by diesel-electric power plants and no depot is needed. Just as I-40 killed Route 66, the diesel engine killed the town of Kelso. The old train depot has been restored and it houses administrative offices of the National Park Service. There are probably other activities going on, but I have never gone inside. I think there might be a miniature museum inside too.

More important, there is water at Kelso Depot. Over the years, it has often been a water stop for me. There are no other services here, and there is no food or groceries to buy. In 2000, about 20 miles to the east there was a small store in Cima (it is no longer open). The Cima store was known for erratic hours and I was hoping they would be open, because I would be just about out of food when I would get there. The plan was to hike to Kelso, get enough water for the rest of the day and then hike towards Cima, which would put me around 15 miles away from the store when I made my night camp. I could have hiked along the Kelso Cima road, which would have been faster, but I chose to head away from the pavement and go cross country. It was supposed to be a backpacking trip, not a road walk.


It was probably around noon when I got to Cima and the store was open. This was a just in-time re-supply. I had eaten the last of my snacks about an hour before and I was almost out of water. So far my planning had been meticulous.

From Cima it is about 35 miles to Stateline, Nevada – that pimple of a gambling town that sits on the California-Nevada border. But it has cheap hotels, cheap restaurants, and several large convenience stores. I planned to take a day off ad rest in Stateline. At the Cima store, which was not cheap, I bought enough food to last a day and two quarts of water.

I headed north towards the Ivanpah Mountains, which I would follow around its eastern flank the rest of the day and part of the next. The area of the Cima Store is a vast forest of Joshua Trees. So many of these wonderful plants, which are not really trees but part of the yucca family, that it is impossible to walk anything that would resemble a straight line. I zig-zagged forward just basking in the delightful forest. I stopped just as it was getting dark and made camp.

DAY 10

Twenty miles, maybe less to get to State Line. It was my 10th consecutive hiking day. I was now trail hardened. I really felt good, and my legs were strong. I only had about 3 pounds of food and water in my pack, meaning I was carrying less than 20 pounds total. I knew it would be easy to get to State Line by about 3PM, which is usually the check-in time for most hotels. If I was going to take a full day off, I wanted to maximize my time.

I quickly clicked of the miles that put me past the Ivanpah Mountains, to the pass that separates the Ivanpah and the Clark Mountain Ranges. The pass is also the track for Interstate 15. I now needed to walk on a road. Across the desert I headed and intersected Nipton Road. It took me over I-15 and access to the open desert. Most of the land from here to the Nevada border is managed by the BLM. There are some private land holdings. So it was somewhat longer than I could have planned, but I looped around all the obstacles of private land (I think), and arrived in State Line about 3:30.

Today you can’t walk my route. The Feds sold us out on our land, and is leasing and financing the huge power plant in this formerly wonderful place to walk. Typical government scums catering to special interest groups. The solar mirrors on the ground focus light to three towers, each more than a hundred yards tall. It is an ecological disaster with 5+ square miles of mirrors, which eliminated a critical habitat of the threatened desert tortoise. A new nightmare has now surfaced; birds flying over the area are instantly fried when they enter the concentrated beams of sunlight that are focused on the 3 towers. In addition, airplane pilots are complaining about the light saying is makes it difficult to fly over the area.

Of course, in 2000 I had no inkling of what the future would bring to the Ivanpah Valley, and I was more interested in showers, steaks, and baked potatoes. The other alternative is to hike the Ivanpah Dry Lake on the other side of I-15, but it is often overwhelmed with off-road vehicles and in heavy rain becomes a shallow lake.

Part 4

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